Tango Contemporary Cafe / Traditional neighborhoods in Honolulu are a rarity. Or at least they look, smell and feel different from neighborhoods in San Francisco or New York where diners spill out onto the sidewalk drinking wine under umbrellas. And this is unerringly what Finnish chef and owner of Tango Contemporary Cafe, Goran Streng, dreams to do with his culinary prodigy. Streng loves the idea of life, art and fine food in an informal setting all brushing up against each other and the sidewalk cafe is the quintessential venue. “I plan to have, oh, three 12×8 rectangular black umbrellas on the sidewalk in enclosed concrete plots,” says Streng with his charming smile and soft-spoken precision. Streng speaks with the exactitude of an architect. “All Finns are closet architects,” he laughs. And you can envision the blueprint clearly etched in his mind. In the chic “neighborhood” of Ala Moana under the wings of the Hokua condominium sits Streng’s cafe, contiguous to P.F. Chang’s and the forthcoming Petals and Blooms–an upscale specialty gifts venue.
Tango is an elegant interval from that cruel life out there. Edith Piaf croons. Sipping an aromatic white Stella Pinot Grigio from Umbria, Italy (reasonably priced at $6 and on the restaurant’s featured wine list), the French jazz rejuvenates my drained limbs. The hearts of romaine with classic caesar dressing and garlic croutons salad with blackened fresh island fish ($10.50), which has a marked kick of spiciness to it.
The roasted garlic croutons and blackened snapper are substantial. The dressing carries a residue of anchovy and is creamy. For dessert, the strawberry-mango crumble is delicious. The crumble ($5.50) arrives with its sugary brown tiara. The warmth of the strawberry/mango–a collage of sweet and tart melts in my mouth. Streng, who makes all his desserts in-house, boasts a flair for confectionary. The coffee brewed to order appears with a perfect head and rich savor.
The attention to architecture and design dominates the interesting interior, which is closer to a postmodern art gallery in SoHO than a culinary site. The pebbles perched in the glass centerpieces that double up as candles reappear in the birch tree installation that divides the restaurant into twin spaces. “In my secret life, I am an architect and designer,” chuckles Goran. What makes Streng a jewel-in-the-rough is that he is a chef who can design kitchens. “I would actually love to open a high-end designer handbag store.” Streng, without any self-professed formal training, designed his own home and in 2005 was invited to design the kitchen for Leeward Community College–he presides over LCC’s board. “Most kitchen architects don’t know anything about cooking, which makes it difficult to design a utilitarian and attractive kitchen.” When Streng decided to finally open his own restaurant with partner Tami Orozco, after years as a prominent chef at the Hawai’i Prince, an aesthetically idyllic space was an essential ingredient. When Streng entered the naked Tango, he closed his eyes and envisioned its birth. “The kitchen is tiny. I designed it as a semi-open kitchen. The high counter in front allows people to see the tips of my hands and face but not scrutinize everything I’m doing.” This behind-the-scenes, laissez-faire approach seems to be a trademark. “I feel a little presumptuous coming out and greeting people. I don’t want to interrupt their experience.”
The architecture of space is not the only topic on our list. Streng turns to the architecture of his menu: “It’s almost impossible to get moi nowadays since they stopped harvesting it. I have been using a red snapper, which is a lovely substitution.” Streng’s plans are to inflect his menu with supplementary high-end items. “I think we have been successful in creating a space that is relatively casual, without the white cloth napkins [the trappings of fine dining] that is appetizing to the Hokua crowd, yet doesn’t intimidate the person walking in after a movie at Ward. Now, I want to kick my menu up a notch and introduce lobster, as well as establish some daily specials. On Monday, I plan to incorporate a signature curry dish–a sweet Madras with celery, carrots, apples and even bananas. On Friday, I will showcase a shrimp and scallop dish with a coconut saffron cream. I just don’t have the space in my kitchen. Otherwise, I would rotate my menu more frequently.”
Accompanying my mustard herb encrusted rack of lamb with roasted garlic thyme jus and onion mashed potato ($23.00) is just a dainty dollop of spicy mustard on the triplet flanks with its accoutrements of lengthy carrots still wearing their verdant green heads. The miniature squashes perch on the plate, their yellow and green speckled bodies with their caps still on. One gets the impression that the vegetables travel directly from garden to plate. However, they are not organic. Streng acquires his vegetables from California because he believes that the quality is superior. The mashed potatoes arrive in a generous mound and their taste is earthy, reminiscent of the mealie pap of my South African childhood.
Streng who is usually in the kitchen by 5:30am favors the early morning due to the quality of the light. “One of the most popular breakfast items is our Gravalax sandwich on Finnish rye.” The open faced gravalax sandwich ($8.50) is dressed with a boursin cheese spread, cucumber and mustard dill sauce. Streng gets his bread from Baile. “It was sort of coincidental. I saw that Baile was offering Finnish Bread. I called up and said man let me try that Finnish bread of yours. I was excited that it wasn’t pumpernickel, which is German and is frequently confused with Finnish bread. And even though it wasn’t the dark and swarthy bread of my youth–you know, it was pretty good. Besides, locals love the gravalax. Our breakfasts are unique because you can’t get anything like them on the island.” Streng offers a Swedish Pytt I Panna that is a fusion of Swedish style potato, ham and sausage hash with sunny side eggs ($8.50) and the Plattar, Swedish pancakes with fresh fruits and whipped cream ($7.75)–both a reminder and departure from his Scandinavian roots.
Enticed by my late lunch, I returned on a Wednesday night for dinner. Following protocol, I made a reservation and Tango is transformed with the blush of the evening light kissing the vast open windows facing the street into a romantic vista. Tango is a serious antidote to excellent cuisine and a foray into postmodern art.
Tango Contemporary Cafe
1288 Ala Moana Boulevard, Ste. 120
Breakfast: Mon–Fri: 7–10am; Sat, Sun: 8—10:30am
Lunch: 11am–4:30pm Daily
Dinner: 5–9:30pm Daily
Take Out and Catering Available
Reservations are available for Dinner only